According to my wife, I’m an inveterate scruff. If I’m not working (when my imaginative wardrobe extends to the radical heights of a sober business suit and generally well-chosen tie) then I’m unlikely to get far past jeans and a T-shirt. This, apparently, not only consigns me to membership of that vast cohort of British men whose ill-fitting clothes serve only to accentuate their misshapen bodies, but also signals a serious lack of self-esteem.
Since I’m so frequently arraigned on these charges, and always found guilty, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to ponder on this “clothes maketh the man” hypothesis. Whilst it’s obvious to me that certain kinds of clothing symbolise status and authority, I should have thought that the status and the authority come first, and the clothes merely reflect or signal it. Maybe someone without status or authority could pretend to have those attributes by wearing the relevant clothes, but I don’t think the pretence would last very long. And I suspect the same applies to the self-esteem argument.
My wife is correct in her analysis in this respect: such self-assurance as I have does largely come from my “professional” life. I’ve been relatively successful and held posts near the top of organisations – no matter that they’ve mostly been tin-pot organisations in which the top is hardly a dizzying distance from the bottom. But put me in the setting of a party, or, God help me, a “networking opportunity”, and I’ll be the one silently observing from the edge of the room, and trying to delude myself that my lack of interaction is the consequence not of my social incompetence, but of the unworthy and boring nature of everyone else. Would a snappier, classier style of dress boost my self-confidence and have me up and circulating with sparkling repartee and irresistible social attraction? Well, I’m not convinced.
I was pondering on this on the tram the other day after the latest of my wife’s show-trials of my sartorial inadequacies (another inevitable guilty verdict, of course.) I was preparing a new defence along the lines that the issue was not my lack of self-esteem, but my wife’s excessive vanity. And her shallow superficiality in insisting that the surface presentation was more significant than the profound stirrings beneath. “I put it to you, madam, …witter…book…cover… witter…judge…don’t.” Perry Mason was going to have to sharpen up his act once I had my witness on the stand.
Unfortunately this reverie was brought to an abrupt halt by the sudden realisation that I was myself indulging in the most outrageous book-cover-judgement scenario at that very moment. One of my fellow passengers was a middle-aged man of gargantuan proportions, whose clothing was so busy being heroic it had no time whatsoever to start thinking about being self-esteem enhancing. But what was so pathetic about this gentleman was that despite both rapidly balding and going grey, yet some straw-clutching idea had persuaded him to comb the few straggling hairs over his shining pate in an homage to Robert Robinson, and then to go the further step of dying these woebegone strands a fetching ginger. This seemed to me like offering the Chancellor a couple of quid to help out with the national debt. It wasn’t really getting to grips with the magnitude of the problem. “Sir, you’re a fat, sweating loser, and having grey hair and a distinguished balding head are actually your best assets. Don’t throw them away.”
I’m not proud of myself. Indeed I’m ashamed at my callous, judgemental and unsympathetic thoughts. But I do wonder about the motivation for those random attempts at self-improvement. Could it be vanity? Desperation? I don’t know, but that didn’t stop me from speculating. So although I’m still not convinced by my wife that clothes and appearance can as easily be cause as effect, I was given a sharp reminder that those same clothes and appearance remain one of our most powerful prejudices.